From Freedom to Slavery & Back
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Forced Labor and Child Labor
on Palm Oil Plantations
In a nine-month investigation from September 2012 to June 2013 for Bloomberg Businessweek, Schuster Institute Senior Fellow E. Benjamin Skinner, supported by a team of other journalists, reported on labor conditions in the palm oil industry in Indonesia. Skinner learned in his reporting that some producers of palm oil, the most popular vegetable oil in the world which is found in thousands of consumer and industrial products, rely in part on Indonesian contractors using forced labor and underage workers.
While reporting on the ground in Indonesia during two trips, Skinner interviewed workers from at least 12 palm oil plantations. The investigation follows the intra-country migration of workers in the palm industry, and highlights the unexpected, terrifying and dangerous journey that one man, “Adam,” took from freedom to slavery and back.
The story, “Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife With Human-Rights Abuses,” is online at businessweek.com and appears in the July 22 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.
These webpages provide supplemental information about the investigation, the palm oil industry, and other material related to the Bloomberg Businessweek article.
The project, based on more than 75 interviews and on-the-ground reporting at 12 palm oil plantations in Indonesia, the largest producer of palm oil in the world, found widespread abuses of basic human rights. Palm oil and its derivatives are found in products ranging from donuts and soap to lipstick, toothpaste, and biodiesel. Global palm oil use has quintupled since 1990 and is now a $44 billion industry. Although some producers have drawn scrutiny from environmental activists, who decry the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia to support palm oil expansion, the human costs of the palm oil boom have been largely overlooked.
Key Project Findings
Among the project's findings:
The estimated 3.7 million workers in Indonesia's palm oil industry include thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive working conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers prey on victims with few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials.
Key to changing the palm oil industry is pressure from consumers, not just in the West, but in Asia, which is driving global demand. The Chinese are now the world’s largest consumer of vegetable oil, of which palm oil is the world’s most produced variety. India is the largest importer of palm oil. “We have a Western-facing strategy on an Eastern-facing problem,” says Dave McLaughlin of the World Wildlife Fund.
Industry enforcement of environmental and human rights standards remains weak, say watchdog organizations. Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a Kuala Lumpur-based palm oil industry group, says the RSPO has never decertified or suspended a member for failing to adhere to labor standards. Schuster Institute investigative team members found child laborers, some as young as nine years old, at each plantation they visited.
The magazine reports that former workers complained of being defrauded, abused, and held captive by CV Sinar Kalimantan, a labor contractor for a top palm oil producing company, Malaysia-based Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK). In an interview, KLK CEO Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Lee Oi Hian said the company canceled the contract of CV Sinar Kalimantan and blacklisted the contractor. But the magazine reports that although claims of workers and managers conflict, it appears that KLK may still be involved with some of the same contractors formerly at CV Sinar Kalimantan.
Shipping records confirm at least 38 corporations have purchased KLK’s palm oil and palm oil derivatives since 2009, including Archer Daniels Midland, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble (P&G), which uses palm oil derivatives in Crest toothpaste, Gillette shave prep, and Olay skin cream. Cargill, America’s largest privately held company, received at least 31 KLK shipments within the last three years, and has sold palm oil and derivatives to Nestlé, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and the Kellogg Company.
When asked for comments, California Oils, Kellogg, Kraft, General Mills, P&G, and Unilever responded that their supplier codes of conduct prohibit the kind of labor abuses the Schuster Institute investigation uncovered. Nestlé and Archer Daniels Midland pledged to investigate the allegations, while a Cargill spokesperson said that “at this time, KLK is not in violation of any labor laws where they operate nor are we aware of any investigation of KLK’s labor practices.”
Learn more about industry response to the Schuster Institute-Bloomberg Businessweek article.
More About This Investigation
This investigation is a partnership between the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, a non-profit reporting center that focuses on issues of human rights and social justice, and Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.
“Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife With Human-Rights Abuses” is part of “The Business of Slavery Reporting Project,” a series of investigative projects by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism that uses the tools of investigative reporting to tell the stories of millions of people enslaved today and to inform Americans and others how endemic slavery is in their everyday lives.
This investigation was made possible by generous support from Humanity United, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Constanze and Oliver Niedermaier. Read Humanity United’s Director of Investments Lori Bishop’s post about the article.
The Schuster Institute's Human Trafficking & Modern-Day Slavery Reporting Project was made possible by a special gift from Elaine and Gerald Schuster, the founding benefactors of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
A plethora of valuable research and writing based on the fieldwork of many organizations has been published on the subject of palm oil and its development and production. This investigation draws on some of this material as a backdrop for the first-hand reporting and findings of forced labor and child labor on oil palm plantations in Indonesia by our team of reporters.
For each investigation in the "Business of Slavery Reporting Project," the Schuster Institute assembles and trains cross-border teams of journalists to document cases of slavery throughout the world, traces the supply chains of slave-made products to American, European, and Asian companies and consumers, and publicizes its findings in major news outlets.
For this investigation, the Schuster Institute's reporting and editing team included E. Benjamin Skinner, David E. Kaplan, Sophie Elsner, Florence Graves, Claire Pavlik Purgus, Molly Taft, and reporting partners in Indonesia who wish to remain anonymous.
Project research was supported in part by Brandeis student research assistants, including: Sidra Ahmed, David Altman, Damiana Andonova, Karrah Beck, Simon Cramer, Lydia Emmanouilidou, Dafna Fine, Brandon Gale, Gina Giorgi, Ariel Glickman, Jaye Yoojeong Han, Michael Haskell, Tate Herbert, Rachel Hirschhaut, Lys Joseph, Megan Kerrigan, Joshua Kestin, Linda Li, Sam Mintz, Alisa Partlan, Sarah Pizzano, Rebecca Richman, Adelina Simpson, Flora Wang, Andrew Wingens, Maddie Ziff, and Janey Zitomer.
A worker on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia hauls palm fruit bunches on his motorcycle. Once palm fruit is harvested, it must get to the mill for processing within 48 hours. This photo is for illustrative purposes only. Photo | Center for International Forestry Research.
On this page
Introduction to the investigation
Key project findings
About the investigation, partnership, contributors
Links to other sections
1. Forced Labor on
Palm Oil Plantations
Journey to Slavery
Journey to Slavery: From Nias to Berau.
Click on image to see map in Prezi format>
Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner
Photo | Kemal Jufri, Bloomberg Businessweek
1. Forced labor and child labor on palm oil plantations
Photo | Center for International Forestry Research
Our investigation reveals that some palm oil--the most widely used vegetable oil in the world--is produced with slave labor. Palm oil is in all the products above, and many more.